x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A troubling attack on Egypt's media

The investigation by Egyptian prosecutors against the comedian Bassem Youssef is having a chilling effect across the country's media.

The man known as Egypt's Jon Stewart is facing jail. Bassem Youssef, a heart surgeon turned comedian whose satirical television show has been compared to Stewart's cutting-edge Daily Show, is under investigation by prosecutors for "undermining the president's standing".

Youssef has mercilessly lampooned the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis since the revolution nearly two years ago, and recently turned his attention to President Mohammed Morsi, in the process earning the hatred of both groups - and delighting his millions of fans. Defending himself in court may prove to be a huge expense for him. Youssef has also been attacked publicly by Salafists, in the most vulgar terms imaginable.

Something nasty is happening to Egypt's media. Salafist firebrand Hazem Abu Ismail frequently rails against journalists who are critical of him; followers held prolonged, menacing protests outside Media Production City, the source of many talk shows. Some of his followers allegedly firebombed anti-Islamist newspapers; Mr Abu Ismal denies that.

At least one newspaper has been accused of publishing false news. Egypt's new constitution has disappointed those who hoped for safeguards for press freedoms.

Nor is the intolerance of free speech all on one side. Anti-Islamists, highly critical of the Al Jazeera news network, firebombed a street-level studio of an Al Jazeera affiliate.

Egypt is still in flux, and emerging powers are eager to stamp their authority on society by drawing "red lines" to shield from critical comment the ideas or persons they hold dear. The Brotherhood uses the levers of government; the Salafists use intimidation. As Egypt emerges from decades of repression, the new freedoms claimed in Tahrir Square are at risk as groups try to control what can and cannot be said publicly.

Intimidation, either legal or rowdy, has a chilling effect: those prosecuted or persecuted often lose their zeal for public-interest journalism.

Such intimidation must be combated at a government level. The courts should throw out such spurious prosecutions, and the government of Mr Morsi should set an example by accepting a reasonable level of free speech, however cacophonous. Repression reduces the freedom of Egyptians, and ultimately harms the legitimacy of the government.